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‘Two of my colleagues were shot’ — a refugee from Ukraine on her journey to find shelter in Budapest

13 May 2022

Alexander Faludy talks to Yuliya Polyans’ka, a journalist who made it out of Bucha


Yuliya Polyans’ka during the interview at Hope Island

Yuliya Polyans’ka during the interview at Hope Island

“I CAN’T sleep till 3 a.m. each night. In some ways, it is like I am still in Bucha,” Yuliya Polyans’ka says, as we sit talking in a converted army hut in outer Budapest. “The shelling followed a regular timetable: 8 a.m. till 2 a.m. exactly, then a six-hour break during which we could sleep. That rhythm is still with me; also, it is hard to stop reading news and worrying about people I love in Ukraine.”

Ms Polyans’ka, aged 37, and her daughter, Valeria, six, have found a temporary home with Reménység Szigete (Hope Island), the Transylvanian-Reformed Congregation in Budapest at its site on a former army base on the edge of Hungary’s capital. Most of her family, however, remains in Ukraine.

“I wanted my mum and my grandmother to come, but my grandmother is 85 and feels too frail to make the journey. My mother feels she must stay and care for her own mother. It was a hard decision to leave them; but I have to give my daughter a chance,” Ms Polyans’ka explains. Her husband, Bogdan, is serving in the territorial militia. “We speak twice each day so that I know he is safe,” she says.

Ms Polyans’ka, a broadcast journalist at Bucha’s local TV station TV-Poglyd, kept working for the first two days of the war. Things changed, however, after the arrival of Russian troops on 26 February. “After that, it was just about survival,” she explains. For three weeks she went into hiding: first in the cellar of her parents home, together with other relatives, and later in a communal shelter with 150 others.

“The bomb shelter we eventually found had not been prepared — it was left over from Soviet times, and had been abandoned. News about it spread by word of mouth and social media, starting with people who had played in it as children.”

In fact, she says, “there was basically no civil defence preparation in Bucha. Because of our jobs, I and other journalists were quite well informed about the invasion risk. We pleaded with the mayor to put things in place, but we were ignored.”

Ms Polyans’ka suspects that some members of the local administration assisted the Russians; they were surprisingly precise about who to search for after securing control of the town. “There seemed to be a pattern: they looked for men who went to the authorities asking for weapons to defend the town in the days before the invasion.”

As a journalist, Ms Polyans’ka felt especially vulnerable. “The transmitters for my TV station were the the first things in Bucha to be knocked out in a missile strike. Two of my male colleagues were found by the Russians and shot,” she says. On one occasion, she thought this might be her own fate: Russian soldiers appeared at the shelter asking for her and Valeria specifically.

“I said I will come, but not my daughter — I expected the worst to happen. They told me I had no choice: it was an order. So we came outside and they gave Valeria a large bar of chocolate and made a show of being friendly to both of us. It felt very odd. It is hard to explain. Perhaps they thought that as a journalist I could influence local opinion favourably through social media: I have a lot of followers on Facebook.”

The soldiers making periodic visits to Ms Polyans’ka’s shelter were quite well disciplined, and sometimes brought food and medicine, but this was the exception to the general rule.

“Invading soldiers in Bucha were raping girls down to the ages of 13 or 14. There were about 300 rapes during the occupation.” As the men did not use contraception, there are now many pregnancies. “Many girls have decided to carry the babies to term rather than seek an abortion. I admire their courage, but also worry for them. It is hard to raise a child in such circumstances, even with good psycho-social support — and there is none in Ukraine just now.”

There were some variations, she says, in the behaviour of different units deployed in Bucha. “Rape was a common feature: soldiers of all sorts did it in a kind of psychotic frenzy following battle.” There were, however, “important differences. Rapes aside, regular Russian soldiers were otherwise better disciplined compared to foreign mercenaries and Chechens.” These groups, she says, “showed more deliberate cruelty, especially Chechens: torturing people by cutting off fingers, and killing parents in front of their children.”

At one point in our conversation, Ms Polyans’ka pauses to take out her phone and show me photos she took after the Russian withdrawal. Although the pictures show much damage to buildings and property, there is one surprising sign of construction by the occupiers: an improvised wooden “battle-field sauna” for soldiers to relax in between patrols.

Despite her experiences, Ms Polyans’ka says that she “feels closer to God” than at other times in her life. That is “partly about relying on him under pressure, but also because I sense his kindness in the people who have helped me and Valeria here at this church,” she says, with reference to Hope Island.

The sense of thankfulness, despite circumstances, works both ways. “We are glad to have Ms Polyans’ka and some other refugees with us,” says the Revd Dr István Zalatnay, Hope Island’s recently retired Pastor of 25 years, who has returned to service at his successor’s request specifically to assist with refugee work.

“Aside from the good which goes with helping these people personally, it connects us with our founding charism,” he explains. “Hope Island was founded as a church congregation in 1992, but it had its roots in church-based humanitarian work in the late 1980s to assist refugees — many of them ethnic-Hungarians — fleeing Caucescu’s Romania. This new work with Ukranians takes the congregation back to its roots.”

Hope Island presently accommodates 11 refugees from Ukraine, but has regular capacity for up to 47 people (extending to 67 people in extremis). “Use of our facilities has fluctuated significantly over the last two months,” Dr Zalatnay says. “Initially, we hosted a number of Nigerian and Indian students, but their embassies organised repatriation flights quite quickly; so now we are getting more Ukrainians arriving in small batches.”

Hope Island is well placed to help, not only because of its refugee background but also because of long-standing ties with Hungarian-speaking Reformed congregations in the border region of Trans-Carpathia, in west Ukraine. “These connections mean we have a better awareness of Ukrainian affairs than might be expected. Also we have some access to people who speak both languages and can help a little with interpreting.”

Dr Zalatnay reflects on the experiences that Ms Polyans’ka has described: “At first, when you hear her, the sheer randomness — the unpredictability — of what she describes makes you question whether Russia’s war crimes are centrally directed. Then, however, you have to ask: who sent those particular units there, knowing from experience they were sure to behave in this way?”

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